It's Absurd to Think Obama Has Already Won

It's Absurd to Think Obama Has Already Won

By David Paul Kuhn - March 4, 2012

Of course Republicans can still win the presidency.

Conservative opinion maker George Will compares the GOP’s presidential fate to Barry Goldwater’s flop. Many key Republicans reportedly believe they are indeed "consigned to defeat." Conservative blogger Erick Erickson promises that defeat if the GOP nominates Mitt Romney. Liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira predicts that Obama will retain the White House as decisively as he attained it four years ago. 

Veteran columnist Robert Samuelson nicely summarized the jelling consensus. “If you believe the conventional wisdom, the presidential election is virtually finished,” he wrote, adding, “I'm inclined to accept it.”

Samuelson should not. And neither should you. Presume Romney is that GOP nominee. Obama is the slight favorite. But only slight. The 2012 general election will likely be what it was always going to be: a close fight on the conventional red-blue battleground.

Obama currently leads Romney in head-to-head matchups, 49 to 44 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. But these early surveys do not historically predict the future. Eight years ago, in early March 2004, John Kerry was ahead of George W. Bush in the Gallop poll, 52 percent to 44 percent among likely voters. Kerry led nearly every poll in July of that year. And we know how that went.

The economy consumes today’s American mind. And there is reason to be sanguine. But the electoral question is not whether the American economy is improving. The strategic question is: Whose economy is improving?

Pundits focus too much on the wrong numbers. There is no predictive economic tea leaf for who wins the White House. But it certainly is not how your stock portfolio is doing. This is a bullish period in the market. Dow 13,000! Yet two-thirds of Americans believe the United States is now in a recession, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. As I’ve written before, gas prices correlate far more than the stock market or the unemployment rate to how the public views a president. Put another way: A president would rather have gas prices down $2 a gallon than the Dow Jones average up another thousand points.

The national average for a gallon of regular gas rose 30 cents in the past month to about $3.75. Yet gas need not rise to $5 a gallon for Republicans to win the White House. The economy need not plummet.

Obama is not a strong incumbent by historic measure. His job approval rating is relatively steady in the Gallup poll. It averaged 45 percent over January and February. Jimmy Carter’s approval rating averaged 55 percent over those same two months in 1980. And, again, we know how that went.

Samuelson hesitated to make the bald prediction that Obama will have a second term because there is not yet a “collapse in Republican support.” But the GOP house will not collapse.

The modern presidential electorate has secure floors. It fortified Obama’s approval rating during his hardest times. It kept Bush above 40 percent until August 2005.

This is not LBJ's era. Lyndon Johnson had an approval rating of about 70 percent when he routed Goldwater. That’s 25 percentage points above Obama’s! Johnson had the legacy of JFK at his back. More than a third of the nation identified as liberal then. Only a fifth does today. 

Goldwater also ran in a time before the two parties were hyper-polarized. Almost half of all Republicans approved of Johnson around Election Day 1964. By comparison, only about one in 10 Democrats approved of Bush on Election Day 2004. The same share of Republicans currently approve of Obama, according to Gallup.

Thus we will not see a sequel to Goldwater. Obama would likely defeat Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich with relative ease. But even those Republicans would win Texas and most of middle America. Goldwater did not.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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